Hannah began to question her relationship when her boyfriend chose not to live with her during lockdown. They had been dating for two and half years but didn’t share a home. Now, forced to choose between not seeing each other for weeks on end, or being together 24/7, he had opted for separation.
“At first, I felt anxious about being apart,” she recalls. But friends reassured her that it was only natural not to want to start living together in such stressful circumstances. “We are both very young, in our early 20s, so I brushed aside my concerns and we went to stay separately with our families.”
Though they had agreed to speak regularly, Hannah quickly noticed they were drifting apart. “Lockdown days felt like Groundhog Day, where we were both doing the same boring stuff, and conversations got quite tedious,” she explains.
They started to argue about everything, especially politics. “I’ve felt disappointed by the government’s response to lockdown, but he wasn’t bothered. That sort of thing really weighed on my mind as I have friends who have been directly affected by Covid.” After six weeks, they found themselves barely speaking. “I realised I didn’t miss him or being around him. I missed my friends a lot more.”
The couple broke up over the phone, which she says was “easier” than a video call. “I didn’t want him to see me cry. I actually preferred breaking up in lockdown, as I was able to think clearly and distract myself by being with my family.”
You tend to find that older couples have been together much longer and weathered more stormsPsychotherapist Gin Lalli
According to research by relationship support charity Relate, Hannah’s situation is not unusual. In April, almost a quarter of couples (23%) said they were struggling with their relationships. Figures released last month show that lockdown has made 8% of people realise they need to end their relationship, rising to 15% for those aged between 25 and 34.
Psychotherapist Gin Lalli says this is partly due to the “newness” of these relationships. “You tend to find that older couples have been together much longer and weathered more storms. If they have already faced difficulties like redundancies, recessions and bereavements, they’re in a better position to deal with another crisis.”
Relate’s survey supports this, showing that more than a third (38%) of 16- to 34-year-olds in relationships struggled to support their partner emotionally during lockdown, compared with 14% of over-55s.
Lalli also points out that younger people’s lives have been more disrupted by coronavirus. “People in their 20s and 30s spend a lot of time exploring their own interests and having experiences. They tend to go out more and spend more time travelling, so it was more of a shock to the system.”
“I had one client in her early 30s who had been married for a few years and thought she was very happy,” Lalli says. “They’d got married because it felt like the right time and seemed like the obvious next step. She and her partner had busy lives outside of the home and each other and would come together for certain events and activities.”
But when they were forced to be together constantly she realised the conventional life she thought she wanted wasn’t for her. “It was like a glimpse into retirement and she hated what she saw. With no news to bring in from the outside world, they ran out of things to say to each other. While she was a social butterfly, her partner was more comfortable staying in. It made her realise that they weren’t as compatible as she had thought and she made the difficult decision to leave the relationship before they had a family together.”
In many cases, the crisis has aggravated existing tensions. Angela, who is in her 50s, had been struggling to cope with her partner’s difficult family long before lockdown. “We both have adult children from earlier relationships. Although I get on with most of Steve’s family, his daughter has substance abuse problems and I don’t agree with the way they handle it,” she explains. “She’s stolen money from us on various occasions and my partner doesn’t seem willing to do anything about it. His extended family are always in and out of our home, so it feels like we don’t have our own space.”
During lockdown, Steve’s family weren’t able to visit and her relationship with him improved. But the break made her realise that their attitudes to family life were very different. “I love my family but also value my independence and time to myself. He loves having his family around all the time and finds it funny when they make a mess and run wild. There’s just no rules for the grandchildren. He’s also not willing to address his daughter’s issues, which is a big problem for us.”
As lockdown started to ease, Angela found herself dreading a return to chaos and has made the decision to find a new place to live. “Our values are just not compatible and we can’t go on living like that.”
Steve has accepted her decision to move out and she hopes that they might be able to rebuild the relationship if they live apart. “We were so much happier when it was just the two of us. It will depend whether he is going to put the effort in when we live separately.”
Peter Saddington, a counsellor and psychosexual therapist for Relate, says that lockdown has accentuated differences in attitudes to parenting and family life. “For people who have children living at home, being together all the time means that couples get to see the other person’s parenting style constantly,” he says. “I had one couple who were coming to counselling because they had different approaches to parenting. They were making great progress earlier in the year, but lockdown was too much for them. They’ve not been able to agree on anything, which has led to them splitting up.”
For Julie, who is in her 20s, lockdown highlighted how little effort her partner put into family life. “I became pregnant by accident and ever since our daughter was born three years ago, he has made it clear that childcare should be my responsibility,” she says. “He used work as an excuse and never helped out. Before lockdown, I knew something was wrong but I kept telling myself that everyone goes through tough times and that it is normal for men to behave badly sometimes.”
I am still processing it all, but in the long run I’ve made the right decision for both me and my daughterJulie
With her partner no longer having the stress of a long daily commute, she expected things to improve, but he still showed no interest in spending time with Julie or their child. “I was shielding, too, as I am in a high-risk group for the virus, which didn’t help. He felt as though he had to be responsible for more because I couldn’t go out to do the shopping, and this made him annoyed.”
Eventually, Julie had to be furloughed, as she was unable to cope with her daughter’s needs without any support from her partner. Realising that he was emotionally abusive, she called her parents to come and pick her up. “I am still processing it all, but in the long run I’ve made the right decision for both me and my daughter.”
Before the pandemic, it was easy to attribute problems in a relationships to the hectic pace of life. Taking away some of those external strains, such as long commutes or travel commitments for work, has meant many people are seeing their relationships clearly for the first time.
“I spoke to one couple with no children who had been having sexual problems for some time,” says Saddington. “They put it down to having no time due to their busy jobs.” But when lockdown came in, they realised that work had never been the problem. “They just weren’t attracted to each other any more and they had been too busy to notice they didn’t really like each other.”
Lockdown has also made it harder to hide infidelity, Saddington says. “When someone doesn’t have the cover of work or nights out with friends, it makes those secret calls and text messages much more obvious. I’ve been counselling one woman who discovered her husband was having an affair during lockdown. His girlfriend had no idea he was married and grew suspicious when he made excuses about why he couldn’t lock down with her. In the end, she contacted his wife to let her know what had been going on.”
While many relationships have broken down, Saddington and Lalli say they have also seen couples grow closer. “Most relationships haven’t stayed the same,” says Lalli. “But the couples who have survived this test have adapted. They tend to have good communication and an understanding of each other, and their vision of their future together is more aligned.”
She adds that spending 24/7 with one person is not that healthy, no matter how strong your relationship is. “Most of the couples that have coped well in lockdown either set ground rules early on or already had unofficial rules, such as giving the other person space when they need it. The more secure someone is in a relationship, the easier this will have been.”
Some names and identifying details have been changed.